The Shoulders I Stand On

Some folks claim there is nothing new in photography. The Renaissance painters and ancient sculptors probably heard similar complaints.

While people have certainly been photographed before – perhaps countless ones with the same lighting setups, or that landscape or product shot, there is unquestionably a uniqueness lent to every image that a photographer takes. Even those intentionally copied – not just inspiration drawn from – are difficult to reproduce exactly.

Photography, like every other art form (or craft, if you want to categorize it that way) evolves. It draws from what was built before. Even the pioneers – Weston, Stieglitz, Adams, Cartier-Bresson – drew from other photographers or other art forms.

It’s interesting that some are seen as providing never-before-seen work, while the reality is often quite different. What is unique is how they lent themselves to their art – they made it unique. Photographers made landscape images before Adams – but none quite like he did.

We all stand on the shoulders of others; as a photographer, I admire other photographers, many of whom came before me but others that are contemporaries as well. When I was younger I found myself trying to emulate them. But as I grew older and started to develop my own style, I recognized and appreciated how I liked to work. I’m probably like many artists: there comes a maturity where you no longer want to emulate someone but rather find improvement in your own work, to evolve your own aesthetic.

And rather than trying to reinvent the wheel, there are some broad shoulders I could lean on to help.

Ansel Adams was the first great influence on me. I appreciate his aesthetic, and even though I am not a landscape photographer, what he taught I liken to an engineering approach to photography. To me, Adams codified it. He provided recipes for deterministically reproducing images. He provided tools to translate what you saw and felt into photographs, predictably, reliably. To me, his Zone System still applies (in principle if not chapter and verse). His was the ideal.

If Adams provided the steak, then Bert Stern added the sizzle. As a commercial and advertising photographer, Bert had the lifestyle as one of the first “rock star” photographers that most (including me) fantasized about. And yet his images still speak to me. I draw many stylistic queues from him; to me his genius was his ability to reduce an image to the bare essentials, all the while retaining a feeling of quality and richness. I attribute the minimalism I see in many of my photographs to Stern.

Don Giannati is a mentor. His glamor work kick-started my interest in glamor and beauty photography, and he’s given me much to consider. This is one influence that I have actually met, worked with, and continue to learn from. I still have “aha!” moments from Don – such as the principle of subject centric lighting (something he learned from the great Dean Collins, but I never appreciated it until Don explained it).

Joe McNally’s use of strobe built upon what I learned from Don. While I have never met Joe, I have all of his books and videos. If there is one person who has had the largest influence on my lighting and my way of thinking about lighting, it is Joe McNally. I blame Joe for my insistence on creating my own key – virtually every time I am in a controlled shooting situation.

There are others – both professionals and amateurs alike – that I continue to build my aesthetic from. Photographers like Sue Bryce, retouching heavyweights Calvin Hollywood and Aaron Nace, and friends on Flickr.

My style is my style. But I didn’t get there alone. I have many people to thank. And my journey, thankfully, is not over yet.

This is an image I shot last year on a dry lake bed outside of Las Vegas. I’m hoping to return and get more desert and dry lake images. Again, it speaks to my desire for simplicity (there isn’t a lot of contention in the background now is there). I am actually not providing my own key (ironically) as the time of day we are shooting at has the sun in the wrong position to get those mountains in the background. So I am actually short lighting her using the sun as key (she is facing directly into it, although the turn of the head short lights her). A strobe is providing fill.

This is my style. But I see Stern, and Giannatti, and McNally in it. They may or may not have shot it this way, but because of them, I did.

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Technique.